Mountain Mediators are going strong in their 80s
John Scroggs, 81, Peggy Smith, 84, and Lee Finger, 82, are anything but average senior citizens.
Rather than enjoy the quiet years of retirement, the three oldest members of Mountain Mediation Services have opted to get in the middle of arguments, disagreements and legal disputes.
Why are they still doing this at such an advanced age?
“Why?” said Scroggs. “We ask that ourselves sometimes.”
“We just haven’t gotten around to stopping,” said Smith. “Keeps us off the streets.”
Tucked away inside the Haywood County Justice Center, Mountain Mediation Services, a 501c nonprofit, gives people a different way to solve their problems.
Mediation uses neutral third parties to help clients resolve disagreements in the workplace, at home or in the neighborhood. Mediators are trained volunteers from the community. They do not take sides, decide who is right or wrong, or give advice. They guide clients through the process of identifying the issues, exploring possible solutions and deciding which solutions will work.
Mountain Mediation Services serves the residents of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, plus those who live on the Qualla Boundary. With so much territory to cover, the “Haywood Horribles,” as they call themselves, stay busy. Combined, Scroggs, Smith and Finger have 50 years of experience and have closed over 2,800 cases.
Scroggs has been a mediator since 1996. Originally from Cherokee County, he worked for the paper mill for over 40 years; he spent 15 years during that time working with the United Paper Workers Union.
Smith began became a mediator in 1999. She’s from Yancey County, but lived and worked for a law office in Connecticut for many years.
Finger is the only native of Haywood County. Originally from Maggie Valley, he was a member of the management at Dayco before retiring and joining the mediators in 1997.
Anyone who is willing to go through the training and volunteer their time can become a mediator. There are extensive initial training sessions and continuing education seminars.
All in a day’s work
Scroggs will go to court, look at the docket and try to identify possible cases — misdemeanors like harassing phone calls, communicating threats and the like.
“Then we talk to the prosecutor’s office, and if it looks like a promising mediation, then someone will interview the people involved, both sides, and see if they’re willing to sit down and mediate,” said Scroggs.
“It’s a heck of a lot cheaper to run things through mediation than to run it through the system,” said Finger.
Every case they settle out of court saves thousdands of dollars. The team members have a good relationship with the district attorney and the clerks.
“If they refer us a case, they know pretty well that we’re not going screw it up,” said Scroggs.
The majority of their cases are referred from the Haywood County criminal magistrate. And in an attempt to keep the court system from getting clogged, a new law from Raleigh now allows certain types of cases to be referred directly to the mediators.
They do not handle felonies or child and domestic abuse cases.
Of the cases that are referred to them, 25 percent will refuse mediation and insist on going to court. Of those that agree to mediation, the three have a 90 percent success rate.
“We meet with the parties separately at the beginning because many time they will tell us things that will help us resolve the problem that they aren’t willing to say with other party there,” said Smith. “And we’re very careful. We assure them that whatever they tell us will not be repeated to the other party. It’s all strictly confidential. And we find out what their problem is. Then we get them together and try to get them to talk about where they want to, what they want. And we always, always stress that whatever they work out is fine, but the children are our primary concern. We want the children taken care of. And sometimes it takes one session, sometimes it takes four session.”
“Part of our responsibility is to do family mediations, things like divorces, child custody and etc,” said Finger. “If children are involved, we always try to make sure that they realize that [the children] the No. 1 priority in whatever they’re talking about.”
The mediators do not arrange for divorces; instead, they arrange for the separating couple to figure out and agree with what they want.
“Many times if they agree on something, we draw up a document, not a legal document, but one they can take to a lawyer; they don’t have to have separate lawyers. Not all lawyers will agree to that, but some do,” said Smith.
The mediators usually work in pairs, especially when it comes to marital disputes. In those cases, both a man and woman mediator will participate so the clients don’t feel like the mediators are taking sides based on gender. Often, the male party will speak to the male mediator and the women party will speak to the woman mediator.
“The most satisfying or the most disappointing is family cases,” said Scroggs.
“Oh yes. If they don’t work, family situations are really unhappy,” said Smith.
“What clouds the issue are children — when to pick them up and drop them off, etc,” said Scroggs. “And in-laws. Mothers-in-law can be tough. Sisters-in-law are even meaner. I’ve had to get between them, and they’ve argued around my belly.”
In addition to their normal caseload, the mediators will also visit Haywood County schools.
“We have a wonderful time at the schools,” said Smith. “We go to the middle schools twice a year and conduct classes on conflict resolution and how to handle bullies.”
They also mediate disputes between students and faculty.
“We have a contract with the school system,” said Scroggs. “If they have a problem, we get there as quick as we can.”
“John and I had quite a long series of going to the schools in other counties, mainly into Cherokee, for truancy investigations,” said Smith. “Now they’ve all had budget cuts and they don’t do that anymore. It’s a shame. It’s needed. Most of the cases, if the child is over fourth or fifth grade, we talk to the kids and we’re very blunt — ‘What’s your problem? Why don’t you go to school?’ Answers include, ‘My mama doesn’t get me up.” One lady was quite blunt with us and told us ‘I don’t like to get up in the morning.’”
“In that case, the school gave the kid an alarm clock,” said Scroggs. “The kid would set it and he would wake his mother up. He was 7-years old.”
Finger feels the mediators do the most good in juvenile court.
“I’ve always felt that we’ve benefitted the juvy court the most,” said Finger. “It gives you an opportunity to touch the feelings of kids, and maybe you can restart some kid and keep them out of the courtroom and expose them to some stuff they aren’t exposed to normally.”
Like a lot of nonprofits, the mediators are “hurting for a budget,” according to Finger. When Mountain Mediation Services was first established in the 1990s, their budget allowed them to provide mediation services for free.
About three years ago, the budget was slashed, and the mediators have to make up their budget with fees. One mediation session costs $100, but that’s a small fee when compared to the thousands of dollars it takes to go through the court system. Additional funding comes from the towns in the county and from United Way.
Despite monetary issues, Scroggs still finds great enjoyment in what he does.
“The answer to why I still do it has changed over the years,” said Scroggs. “At first, it was wanting to help people. I’ve spent the biggest part of my adult life representing people. But now it’s the challenge.”
For more information about Mountain Mediation Services, call 452-0240, or visit www.mountainmediation.org.